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Designing Ritual

25 Post author: Raemon 11 January 2012 01:52AM

This is the third post in my ritual mini-sequence. My first article was an emotional rallying cry around of the idea of a rational-(trans)humanist culture. My second article examined the value and potential dangers of ritual.

So far, I remain convinced that ritual is a valuable experience for most people. I don’t know if there can or should be a unified “Less Wrong” culture, but I do think individual communities should consider creating their own (“rational-humanist” or otherwise). Ritual can be a useful source of fun, comfort and inspiration for positive change. A decent heuristic for "Should my meetup try this?" is "Do the people at my meetup think this sounds cool?"

This article is both an explanation of certain design principles, and a case study of my attempt at one particular kind of community event.

Designing Timelessness

So, say your community decides to incorporate some ritual. How do you do that?

Ritual-space is large, and includes things as simple as "Pass around dark chocolate at the beginning of meetups." You probably already have some kind of ritual going on. Over time, these small traditions can accumulate into something interesting and comforting. But if you’re like me, you want something more powerful - you want the gravitas of an ancient cultural cornerstone, and you want it now.

This is... a challenge.

“Creating tradition” almost feels like an oxymoron. To be effective, it has to have a timeless quality about it. It doesn't have to actually be ancient, but it needs to feel resonant, familiar and personal. Most ritual is created through a combination of artistic skill and memetic evolution. A few central traditions begin the process (say, a particular feast, prayer and/or anthem), and then the ritual begins to spread from family to family, adapting in response to memetic selection pressure, filling specific niches, often resulting in bizarre injokes and absurdities. The absurdities can actually help bind a community together, as a badge of pride.

Powerful governments and religions can attempt to steer this. The Catholic church votes on deliberate changes to their ceremonies. But the church could not have intentionally created Modern Western Christmas - a bizarre gestalt of pagan and christian mythology, random stories, eventually infused with modern capitalism to become a monolithic culture and industry.

One of the hardest things an artist can do is create a work that appears to have already been weathered by natural forces. It’s much easier to create a clean room than a crumbling ruin. The weight of ancient cultural cornerstones is built out of a lot of subtle details, and if you get them wrong, you’ll get a ridiculous, uncanny-valley effect (especially if you were taking everything really seriously).

But I think it can be done. The Solstice celebration I put together was a solid first attempt, and I feel that much more is possible. I’m going to walk through my design process, and then discuss what areas I think needed more work. I recently finished the Extended Edition With Commentary of the evening’s songbook. You can either look it over now, or after reading this article. (Ordinarily I’d say art should stand on its own without explanation, but since the actual “art” was an interactive ceremony, I don’t think it matters much. The book is intended to be its own kind of art, but I’ll leave it up to you.)

(Pausing here a moment so that the people who wanted to look over the book first have a second chance to do so, before being carried forward by inertia.)

All right. These were among my biggest considerations, when creating the Solstice celebration:

  • Have a Goal
  • Build on the Familiar
  • Do Research, and Cultivate Diversity of Experience
  • Manage Complexity
  • Field Testing
  • Remember (And Re-Evaluate) your Goal

Have A Goal

My primary goal for the Solstice was personal, and perhaps selfish: I wanted a particular, profound, intense experience. I’d had pieces of it in the past - communal singing, tribal belonging, reading beautiful prose that resonated with me. I’ve been to religious events and felt a hint of their potency. I wanted to weave all these elements into a single experience.

A related goal, not quite so selfish, was wanting to channel this power into changing myself, to inspire myself to be the kind of person I wanted to be.

Closely intertwined with those goals was the desire to create a fun, and hopefully moving experience for my community. In some ways this was instrumental to the first goals, but the event wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t genuinely cared about creating something that everyone could enjoy together, for their own sake.

An unrelated goal, which I had to take care not to override more important ones, is that I’ve been wanting to have a Cthulhu-caroling party since like forever.

It took several months for these to weave into a single, unified plan for the evening. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Build on the Familiar

Culture can be created, but not from nothing. You’ll need to work off existing ideas that your tribe already shares.

One of the most important functions that tradition and ritual serve is to comfort. From what I've read and experienced, humans are hardwired to feel on-edge when they're in an unfamiliar situation. Uncertainty is a heuristic for danger - both to your physical life, and ostracization from the group (ultimately making it harder to find a mate). My accompanying just-so story is that repeated social traditions make your brain feel safe - you’re surrounded by people doing familiar things you understand, so you don’t have worry about suddenly getting kicked out of the group for no reason. You’re also surrounded by friends that could probably protect you if a tiger suddenly jumped out of the woods and attacked.

So if you want to induce that warm comfort, you’ll need to be working with memes and activities that feel familiar. The NYC meetup has some diverse values, but we share a vision of the power of human achievement, and a future that is better specifically because of scientific progress. We also share an understanding of how dangerous and cruel the universe can be. Most of us have had these beliefs for a while, but it was Eliezer’s Sequences that crystalized them into a coherent, specific and moving worldview, and brought us together as a community.

So the Sequences provided the content. But I turned to existing religious rituals for the structure. I knew that my family’s Christmas Eve (where we feast, then gather and sing carols for hours, with a gradual emotion arc from silly-to-serious) was a good frame to build around. I’ve also had experience with Catholic Mass and a Seder, which incorporated stories alongside songs. These sorts of events are ubiquitous throughout our culture. Even if you don’t have personal experience with them, you’ve probably grown up with ingrained stereotypes about them and vaguely identify them as “normal.”

I think this was the single most important point - we had content that resonated with everyone, built around a structure that was familiar.

Big ideas are important, but weaving together smaller memes was also key. I looked for songs, stories or activities that I knew were already popular among our group:

  • Our group has a fondness for dark chocolate, which has become something of a tribal badge. I don’t actually even like dark chocolate that much, but it’s oddly comforting to pass it around the living room.
  • Songs like “Still Alive” and “RE Your Brains” are crowd favorites in our group. They aren’t exactly on theme, but everyone knows them, and they were woven into the evening’s narrative easily enough. Monty Python and Tom Lehrer also provided some examples, which were not only familiar but are just old enough to feel slightly “traditional”.
  • We’re not all Lovecraft enthusiasts, but most of us are at least passingly familiar with them as a facet of nerd culture. There also is an existing large body of Lovecraft-inspired songs (on a CD entitled “A Very Scary Solstice”), that some of us already knew, and which parodied existing Christmas carols which would make them easier to learn.
  • Our group is predominantly Jewish (ethnically, at least). We actually had a Rationalist Seder earlier in the year. This gave me an initial “reverse hanukkah” idea (turning out lights to represent the darkness of the universe).

These things made sense to consider for my community, and together they suggested a particular interpretation of the Sequences. They may not make sense for your community. If you want to do something like this, you’ll have to look at your own community, identify your own proto-rituals, and use them to create something that feels like it’s evolved around your group’s selection pressures.

Research, and Diversity of Experience

Not only will culture look weird if you create it from scratch, but it’s almost literally impossible to create an idea from scratch, period. Creativity is about combining different ideas together in interesting ways. It’s a lot easier to do this if you have a variety of interesting concepts to work with.

I started this endeavor with an array of background knowledge - I’ve had a lot of exposure to folk music and have written some amateur songs. I’ve trained in visual art, communications and game design (what you might more generally call “interactive media.”). I’ve looked at several religious communities and seen a few different ways that ceremonies have been put together. These were valuable disciplines to draw upon.

On top of that, I did research on traditional solstice celebrations and the origin of H.P. Lovecraft’s ideas. I shouldn’t need to sell Less Wrongers on the value of research, but a common pitfall of amateur artists is that they get one good idea and then assume that’s good enough. They don’t care about factual accuracy, they’re just making “art”, and they’re being “creative” which means inventing ideas from scratch. Which is horribly ineffective, even if all you care about is art. Doing research allows you to be more creative, since you get more ideas bouncing off each other. And if you choose to invoke poetic license, ignoring a particular fact, you can do so from a position of strength, knowing that the fact wasn’t really essential to your point, or that it allowed you to emphasize a more important fact instead.

This is all the more important when you’re creating something for rationalists, who are going to pick apart your story and identify everything you get wrong.

The most powerful elements of the evening came from reading I did in the last few weeks. I hadn’t even intended it as a solstice party when I first conceived it - it was just going to be a fun Lovecraft caroling party. The solstice, and Stonehenge in particular, turned out to be powerful symbols that supplied a concrete narrative. This was important, because vague symbols like “light” and “darkness” and “life” and “death” are so overused that you need a real, compelling story for them to feel meaningful. If I had just run with my initial idea, the result wouldn’t have been worth posting on this site.

Manage Complexity

There’s a proverb you may have heard:A designer achieves perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

As you research and develop ideas, those ideas will accumulate and grow more complex. This will happen for individual pieces, and it will happen to the work as a whole. The problem is that there’s a limit to how much complexity people can handle. The consequences vary from artform to artform. In the case of a ceremony, songs can be too challenging to sing, and stories can get too wordy or long.

Sometimes, you may want twenty verses for a song to communicate a complex idea. You may want interesting harmonies or modulations that make it really beautiful. Your audience may even be able to handle it - the complexity can be worth it.

BUT. Just because your participants can handle one complex song does not mean they can handle 30 in a row. You need to make each piece as simple as it can be, so you have leftover complexity to use in more important places. This means you may need to revise some songs - even songs you really like, cutting out perfectly good lines that just weren’t quite pulling their weight, so that you could afford to make another, more important section lengthier or more interesting.

Communal songs are not like regular song. They must be easy to sing. They should have a refrain that everyone can easily join in on even if they get lost. Ideally, the lyrics should be someone “obvious” so that people naturally end up singing the right words even if they aren’t paying attention.

I ended up have 2-3 “hard” songs, another 2-3 “medium” songs, and the rest were deliberately less interesting but easier.

The Sequence readings were the most challenging part of this. I had to figure out which elements of them were most important and drastically cut them apart, while preserving the original impact of Eliezer’s work.

Field Testing

No amount of planning can replace actual empirical testing. Unfortunately, pieces of rituals can’t really be tested in isolation. By itself, a single activity can have a completely different feel compared to when you’re in the middle of a long ceremony, light sources flickering and surrounded by friends. On top of this, it’s impractical to hold a “practice” ceremony, since it’d make the “real” ceremony feel repetitive.

But at least some amount of practice can be valuable. If you’re writing new songs, or if you’re going to be giving a speech: Record yourself performing, and play it back. An iPhone’s voice memo app is a good way to do this. Not only will this give you vocal practice, but you’ll know how long a piece is, and you may be surprised at how something actually sounds compared to how it sounded in your head. (I sang some songs for weeks, carefully tuning them, until the day I actually recorded myself and realized a bunch of obvious problems I had been ignoring)

You’ll want at least some practice getting other people to participate. Getting people to try out a song by itself can feel a little awkward, but I managed a decent test at a meetup. I started by asking people to suggest songs they liked that were on-theme. We played them on youtube, and sang along karaoke style. This got everyone’s energy up, which gave me more confidence to try singing unfamiliar songs I had written, without musical backup. I learned important information about what people had an easy time singing along with and what they didn’t. People also got a lot more excited about the event. A lot of the songs people suggested made great additions to the final ceremony.

I had another important source of information from earlier in the year - the NYC had also done a Rationalist Seder in the spring. This actually had the opposite emotional arc than what I was going for - wine drinking is built into the Seder, and it becomes more jovial over time. I wanted things to start jovial, but then turn very dark before they eventually became uplifting. So I kept the dinner and singing sections separate. Those who drank during dinner were particularly jubilant at the beginning, but sober by the time we reached the parts that were intentionally grim.

One thing I did NOT test was use of light sources, which turned out to be a very complex logistical problem. More on this later.

Remember (and Re-Evaluate) your Goal

As you work on individual sections, it can be easy to forget your original goal. Remember that each piece isn’t just there to be awesome - it’s there to produce an awesome overall composition.

It’s also okay if your goal changes - mine went from “silly Lovecraft caroling” to “serious (trans)humanist ceremony” to something in between, as I gained more data. I cut out all the Lovecraft when it seemed unnecessary, and then added chunks back in when I realized there was some genuinely interesting stuff worth including. But every now and again, I made sure to step from the work, and look at the whole. Every piece there needed to contribute to a coherent vision, even if that vision was different than the one I started with. Don’t let your personal attachments to ideas blind you - anything that isn’t pulling its weight should be changed or cut.

Finally, do at least one read of the entire script, to check how long it is. Don’t rely on this for information on the emotional arc (it will be very different when you’re reading by yourself than celebrating in a group) but try and get a general sense of the flow.

My Results

So, how did my event actually go?

I’m going to recommend you take a break now, and go read the actual extended edition and form your own opinion, before you read my self-critique. And maybe just take a while in general. This article is long, and I don’t think it quite warrants two separate articles to split into. A breather may be good.

Okay. Back?

I actually answered this in a comment in the original post - I wanted to be upfront about the good and bad things, right off the bat. Here’s the original comment:

  1. The party was absolutely worth doing, even if it were just for general warmth, fun and togetherness
  2. I did not personally achieve the profound feeling I was hoping for at the event in particular. But I did achieve it several times over while I was planning it, and I think I burned out on profundity before I actually got to the night in question. It was also warped somewhat by performance anxiety. I didn't actually feel like a participant in the event - I felt like a performer, and to some extent a scientist observing a phenomenon. I think that was mostly unique to me, although it will probably apply to anyone putting the event together for the first time.
  3. So far I've spoken to a few other participants after the fact. Reactions seem to range based on how susceptible you are in general to warm fuzzies (more importantly, what I've come to call "warm shivers"). Everyone seems enthusiastic about doing it again, and most people seemed to have at least one moment that touched them, but different people reacted strongly to different parts of the evening.
  4. A fairly common reaction was "this was a great idea and a good execution, but I have a strong sense that MUCH more is possible." (This was my reaction as well)

Some new information I’ve gathered since then:

5) I set up an anonymous feedback box on our mailing list, to address conformity issues. I only got two comments there, one was a person who didn’t attend who was concerned about cult-image in general, and one was specifically concerned about the Singularity song, which I’m still reconsidering for next year.

6) There was a little too much Lovecraft. This was my fault - it was something I personally liked, which I should have been more careful not to overemphasize. In the final, extended edition of the ritual book, I removed excess Lovecraft and replaced it with other things.

7) Some mistakes were due to time constraints. The first five songs were not very good - they were pre-existing Lovecraft songs that I got off the internet. I deliberately allowed those songs to not be very good, because I knew that when the singing started, people would still be getting the hang of it. I had limited time to prepare and focused on the important parts. I’ve altered or replaced some of the early songs in the extended edition, but they are still deliberately less important.

8) A few people reported that I (successfully) made them almost cry during the dark sections, but that I didn’t have enough uplifting songs to finish it off.

9) Relatedly, the lynchpin song, “Brighter Than Today,” which I wrote for the transition from dark to light, is rather complicated to sing. I’m on the fence of whether I should make it simpler, or just allow the transitional anthem to be complex and expect people to get better at singing it over time. I think it would lose some power if I made it a more communal-friendly song. Different participants have given me different opinions on this.

10) Light sources turned out to be complicated. Partly because we just forgot to turn them off. I solved that by including instructions in the actual booklet. Partly because we didn’t bring enough. I’m going to emphasize that more and ensure we have a better variety. (I left my own Lava Lamp and Lightning Ball at my parent’s home and forgot them). But there was a harder problem that I don’t know how to solve:

Each light source should feel dramatic when it turns off. Which essentially means that each light should be among the more “powerful” remaining lights. A single candle getting snuffed out is irrelevant when all the lights are on, but powerful when it’s the last light remaining.

But there’s only so many lights you can turn off before it becomes hard to read. This *could* be solved by using “True” communal songs - songs designed so you can figure them out and sing along without any text at all. But those songs tend to be louder and more boisterous. The whole point of the enroaching darkness is to become more grim.

Having more light sources may solve this problem - giving us enough to turn off while still having illumination to read by. Yet another part of the problem was a lack of table-space: there were 20 of us, and we ended up sitting in a circle of chairs. How to resolve this problem will depend a lot on who’s participating, how well they can read in the dark, and what kind of room/table you have to work with.

11) I went back and forth on “The Gift We Give Tomorrow,” and how short I wanted to make it. It reads like a conversation, and if you have two people who are both familiar with it, it can probably be okay as a longer piece. But I didn’t find someone to read it with me early enough to practice together. So I ended up shortening it dramatically, cutting out the entire first half.

By the time I did this, I had spent three weeks wallowing in existential despair, studying a lot of grim writings about the cruelty of the universe, and I had basically lost the ability to discern emotional content. I thought I could get away with cutting away everything except the “poetic” sections of The Gift. It turns out you shouldn’t do this. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as potent as it should have been.

Next year I plan on doing the “full” version (i.e the abridged version I posted here), and just make sure I get someone to practice with.

12) On a related note: make sure you give yourself enough time to work on something like this. You don’t just need time to write it, you need time to take a step back, let your brain recalibrate so you can properly evaluate sadness and beauty, and then still be able to revise it for a final draft.

Next Year

Last year, I let these ideas gestate for about 8 months before I got serious about putting this together. This year I'll be planning ahead a lot more. I'll also be setting some other things in motion, that may interact with the Solstice celebration in ways I can't predict just yet. (Among other things, possibly getting a much cooler space to conduct it in)

I aim to have found or written more and better songs, possibly replacing some of the less on-theme ones that I included this year. I hope to collaborate more with trained musicians, do more research, and improve my own design skills. I have some specific thoughts on how to address existing problems, but those may radically change as I explore new possibilities.

I also plan to have networked with other local humanist, skeptical and rational communities. I don’t know if the end result will be a larger Less Wrong NYC community (having found people who’d naturally gravitate to our memes), a stronger coalition of Less Wrong communities beyond NYC, or a less specific coalition of rational/skeptical/humanist groups. Satisfying the needs of multiple tribes may water down your values, but I think we can find plenty of things in common with related groups of people. Depending on the direction I go in, next year’s Solstice may be mostly the same or radically different. (I may even hold multiple ones for different target audiences).

I won’t be posting about this on Less Wrong - I think this website should mostly focus on quality technical posts, and I know culture-building can be a turn off to some. But I am interested in collaborating with anyone who’s interested (and if you’re NOT interested but are slightly scared of what I’m trying to do, I welcome you to keep an eye on me as a Rationalist Confessor). I’ll be starting a mailing list and possibly a design blog relating to this. Send me a PM if you’re interested.

And if you’re not really interested the large-scale culture building, but wanted some inspiration for your own community, Less Wrong or otherwise, I hope I helped.

Comments (75)

Comment author: pleeppleep 12 January 2012 03:00:58AM *  6 points [-]

If i may, i'd like to suggest a song for your next solstice. I dont know whether you've ever seen Disney's Tarzan or not, but I think the song Son of Man by Phil Collins fits right into our way of thinking. I came across it on youtube and couldnt think of anything except how perfectly it fits with some of the more optimistic bits from your ritual.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 03:33:41AM 2 points [-]

That is a remarkably good idea. It may need work to make more communal-sing-able, but yes, very good fit.

It may also be a good song for the Apocrypha Dance Party, which is a section of the night I didn't bother explaining yet because the article got too long and it seemed unnecessary: after the main event, we went back up to someone's apartment and had a karaoke-style party, with all the music that really needed good instrumentation, or was too hard to sing, or just didn't quite fit into the narrative of the night.

Son of Man may fit into that category, although the general theme fits perfectly into the uplifting section, and approaches things in a way that the other uplifting songs didn't.

Comment author: pleeppleep 13 January 2012 02:22:54AM 1 point [-]

In that case i'd also recommend checking out music by Voltaire (dont know if you're familiar with him, i think he's kinda obscure). I dont think his songs have too much in the way of pure rationality, but he'll probably overload your Lovecraft sections. the songs are generally morbid and comical and fun to sing along or dance to.

Comment author: Alicorn 12 January 2012 06:31:00PM 1 point [-]

I never thought about it like that because it's about a specific dude in the context of the movie, but wow. That is a suitable song.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 06:36:34PM *  1 point [-]

I don't the original context needs to be abandoned completely either. It can be appropriated to tell the story of a hypothetical hominid who was the first one to develop some level of abstract reasoning.

The more I think about it the more frustrated I am by the song's medium difficulty level. It's just well known enough that changing some of the meter around could mess up the people who DO know it. (There were slight problems with appropriating and simplifiying the song "No One is Alone" from Into the Woods, for the same reason)

Comment author: pleeppleep 13 January 2012 10:48:32PM 0 points [-]

when you did the ritual, did you just sing all the songs or did you play music alongside it? Some of them (singularity, for instance) seem sort of like they would need the music to be sung.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 14 January 2012 03:27:36AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: WrongBot 11 January 2012 05:31:23AM 6 points [-]

I've been very skeptical of this sequence and the ritual idea in general, but I actually stopped, read your ritual book, and now I think I get it, at least a little. You've done something good. It can be better, of course. (It can always be better.) But this is good.

Comment author: Raemon 11 January 2012 05:42:14AM *  1 point [-]

Thank you.

(I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy now, but can't think of anything else to say)

Comment author: [deleted] 12 January 2012 01:49:38PM 4 points [-]

Some suggestions:

  • Lets spill some blood. Rationality is serious business, a matter of life and death. Blood, toil, tears and sweat. Our rituals should reflect on that fact. (And blood makes a ritual so much cooler)

  • Anthems might be a more fitting Style to copy than jolly christmas songs. They hold great power.

  • have everyone pledge to the virtues of rationality: "I shall not cave in to social pressure. I shall search for flaws in my own arguments as much as for those in my fellow rationalists. ..."

Comment author: Alicorn 12 January 2012 06:26:38PM 16 points [-]

have everyone pledge to the virtues of rationality: "I shall not cave in to social pressure.


Comment author: TheOtherDave 12 January 2012 06:34:23PM 5 points [-]

"You are all individuals!"

Comment author: EphemeralNight 14 January 2012 11:23:38AM *  3 points [-]

Now everybody stand up and declare, "I am unique!".

Comment author: hamnox 25 January 2012 04:27:58PM 1 point [-]

I'm not.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 06:41:32PM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: pleeppleep 13 January 2012 02:31:19AM 1 point [-]

Im curious, how would the spilling blood idea work exactly? would everyone cut their fingers on the spot? would it be collected beforehand? and where exactly would we spill it? Down the drain? I'm not criticizing the idea (well, maybe a little) but i just want to know what you have in mind.

Comment author: shminux 12 January 2012 06:37:42PM *  1 point [-]

Lets spill some blood. Rationality is serious business, a matter of life and death. Blood, toil, tears and sweat. Our rituals should reflect on that fact. (And blood makes a ritual so much cooler)

Blood is overused, tears are pathetic, and sweat is gross. How about saliva?

P.S. (Yes, I realize that the Arminius's post was on a sarcastic side.)

Comment author: FiftyTwo 14 January 2012 03:33:19AM 2 points [-]

Orgies might help recruitment....


Comment author: daenerys 14 January 2012 03:37:04AM 1 point [-]

....with the gender ratio on this site??? probably not.

Comment author: Anubhav 14 January 2012 08:44:42AM *  0 points [-]

It's been -OVER- ALMOST NINE MONTHS since -Light- Eliezer posted this; he's probably got a bunch of elite scientists working on it by now.

How he managed to do that is something I'd rather not think too hard about.

Edit: Ugh, this is no fun without strikethroughs.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 03:27:16PM *  0 points [-]

I can't tell whether you're joking about the blood thing. (My prior would be on joking, except the other two points are semi-reasonable.

Edit: Okay the social pressure one is (superficially) ridiculous, but the idea behind it is not.

Comment author: [deleted] 14 January 2012 05:14:48AM 1 point [-]

Its not a joke.

It seems i have underestimatet both the creep factor and the inferential distance.

Let me explain:

Blood is a powerful Symbol. Its not without reason that it has been an important ingredient of many rituals throughout history. What ist even more important: There is a special meaning that is connected to spilling some drops of ones own blood: The willingness to take the hard way, to endure pain and sacrifice; determination. How does this relate to rationality? Rationality may require to chose the hard way, questioning dear- held beliefs, acting against deeply anchored social programming, breaking the rules of society.

But i dont want to overstate my case. Maybe there are less controversial means to accomplish the same ends? No need to use the creepy stuff if functional equivalents are at hand.

Beyond that, there seams to be a more general issue:
"jolly" rituals vs "solemn" rituals

All of my suggestions belong to the "solemn" category.
Solemn rituals are probably much harder to implement. They require a stronger group coherence and more commitment. On the other hand, solemn rituals are far more powerful (and therefore, dangerous). I think it is an option worth exploring.

Comment author: Anubhav 14 January 2012 08:33:09AM *  2 points [-]

I doubt 'solemn' is the word to use here. The Solstice celebration gets pretty solemn as it progresses, and yet it's clearly not the kind of ceremony you're thinking of.

The kind of ritual you seem to be suggesting... the only people (in fact and fiction alike) I can think of who've had rituals like that are brotherhoods of warriors/insurgents.

Which might be what you're aiming for, but I don't think our peaceful circle of philosophers should take up arms against the Enemies of Sanity just yet.

Comment author: Raemon 15 January 2012 08:23:38PM 1 point [-]

I agree that solemn rituals are harder but more powerful. I don't think doing a pin-prick-blood ritual is an inherently bad idea, but it's the sort thing that's too creepy to be used in any kind of ceremony that we wanted the public to know about.

Beyond the creep factor, it also (slightly) crosses a line that I don't want to cross - causing bodily harm. There may be genuinely good reasons to cross that line, but once you've crossed the line then a lot of issues become a lot murkier. Since we're dealing with complex and potentially dangerous forces, I'd rather set up some strict rules that are well in advance of anything genuinely bad that might happen.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 January 2012 04:48:32AM 4 points [-]

But there’s only so many lights you can turn off before it becomes hard to read.

This would dramatically increase the expense of the ritual books, and probably encourage scrolls over actual books, but glow in the dark ink is a thing you can buy. It would both solve this logistical problem (though creating another one or two) and add to the coolness factor.

Comment author: Raemon 11 January 2012 05:05:33AM *  1 point [-]

How expensive is it, and is it permanent?

If it is permanent and I was able to settle on a couple songs that I knew I would sing for multiple years, it could be worth the expense.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 January 2012 02:55:00PM 1 point [-]

I believe it's permanent, but haven't worked with it.

The problem with estimating the expense is that most of the ink you can buy isn't suitable for inkjet printing, and so you would be looking at going to a print shop for a specialty run. You can buy glow in the dark paper for ~$4 a page, but then that requires printing everywhere but the text in black ink (front and back). It looks like it would be much cheaper to make using an empty cartridge and glow powder. (video)

Comment author: Alex_Altair 16 January 2012 07:48:09PM 1 point [-]

You could just print black lettering on it and have the whole page glow. Also, you could use the glow-in-the-dark ink to hand-write the songs. No printer worries there.

Comment author: Vaniver 16 January 2012 08:14:04PM *  1 point [-]

That would work, but a glowing page would probably be a light source on the scale of candles. Handwriting the books is an option, but one that requires quite a bit of time: the extended ritual book is 80 pages; I estimate the original books were ~40, with text on only about half of those pages, but with just 25 participants you're talking about a full ream of handwritten material.

Comment author: moshez 12 January 2012 07:22:20PM 3 points [-]

Just one thing that bothered me right off the bat when I read the book -- PLEASE PLEASE attribute songs to the original creators. Otherwise, it looks like you're claiming you wrote the song. That's just unfair... :(

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 07:33:29PM *  3 points [-]

Sorry, I did mean to do that but due to lack of time (and due to me not making money of this and stating a few times I had collected existing songs) it fell by the wayside. I realize it's not that hard, there were just a bunch of other not-that-hard things that needed doing. I'll get to it in the near future.

Related note: does anyone know offhand the rules about making money off a book that includes properly attributed lyrics to songs you didn't write? I'm assuming rights-holders must be individually contacted and compensated, but wasn't sure. Among my possible projects for the next year (or two) is a "General Audience" version of the book which is less transhumanist, properly attributed, fully illustrated, and otherwise classier. It would be available for free online but potentially sold on demand to people who wanted a nice printed edition.

Comment author: thomblake 12 January 2012 07:53:08PM 1 point [-]

IANAL, but generally printing song lyrics for the purposes of singing them is not fair use, and you would have to work out rights for printing with each of the intellectual property holders.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 08:00:53PM 0 points [-]

That is what I figured. (Does that apply even to strictly free things? Should I be concerned about the uploaded pdf, attributed or no?)

Comment author: thomblake 12 January 2012 08:05:37PM 0 points [-]

In theory, making copies of the work of others is a violation of their intellectual property, unless you've been conferred that right, regardless of whether you're making money.

In practice, if you are not making money, then it is difficult to establish damages, and so a court case will ordinarily not be pursued.

Comment author: Anubhav 13 January 2012 12:52:16PM *  2 points [-]

In practice, there are statutory damages on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars, but the chances of things getting that bad are astronomically low.

I doubt any rightsholder is looking over stuff that LW members put out. They generally target people downloading off 'pirate sites', who they then send nastygrams to the effect of 'That's a nice house you got there. Wouldn't want anything happening to it, would you? Now send us some cash or we call in the lawyers and sue your ass for a million bucks.'

Anyhow, you should be fine with a pdf you released to some obscure site, even if it's not technically legal.

(Come to think of it, I'm not sure that the risk of getting sued increases that much if you print and sell it. But it is seen as more socially unacceptable.)

Disclosure: IP-related issues have a mind-killing effect on me, might be best to take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Comment author: Nisan 12 January 2012 09:20:55PM 2 points [-]

I read the hymnal in an hour and a half. I was crying the whole time.

Comment author: Raemon 13 January 2012 01:17:41AM 0 points [-]

Not sure if that's a good thing or bad thing (depending on the specific motivations, if you were still crying by the end I may not have done my job right)

Comment author: Nisan 13 January 2012 01:43:30AM 0 points [-]

I don't know. My emotional reaction might be different if I were singing it in a group.

Comment author: Raemon 13 January 2012 01:59:32AM 0 points [-]

I guess my main question is: are you okay? (Related question - overall would you have preferred to have read it/not read it?)

I expected it to have less of an impact when read on your own (although slightly more if read aloud). I'd like to know about what range of specific emotions it elicits (and which parts elicited them), if people can describe it.

Comment author: Nisan 13 January 2012 06:23:07AM 1 point [-]

Oh! I am okay. I enjoyed crying. It felt good. It's how I experience hope.

I first teared up at this point:

We can look at the darkness of the world and wallow in despair. We can make up reasons why the darkness isn't so bad. Or we can look at the light, the things that, by our standards, are beautiful and good.

This vision of a precious, fragile humanity crawling towards the light is what I'm calling "hope". It combines the recognition of pain, the recognition of danger, and the recognition of hope. It was especially strong when I sang or read these in my head:

  • God Wrote the World
  • Beyond the Reach of God
  • No One Is Alone
  • The Gift We Give Tomorrow

The darkest moment, when the last candle is extinguished, is especially poignant in my imagination.

At no point did I feel fearful or depressed. I fully enjoyed the lighthearted bits.

Comment author: Costanza 11 January 2012 01:16:47AM 2 points [-]

Very, very minor point:

My understanding is that officials in the Catholic church vote on deliberate changes to their ceremonies.

You're correct.

Comment author: Kevin 11 January 2012 02:53:20AM *  2 points [-]

Thanks, this is helpful. I do need to design a ritual for this year's Burning Man camp.

The theme is the "Temple of Salt" and I'd like to invite the public to come to the "Salt Ritual". So far I plan on having a pink rock salt statue of Lot's Wife for people to lick but the ritual needs a bit more to it and I'm very open to ideas.

Comment author: Alicorn 11 January 2012 03:13:26AM 8 points [-]

Several people are going to share a salt lick? That doesn't sound sanitary.

Comment author: Kevin 11 January 2012 05:17:55AM *  1 point [-]

Typically yes, but Burning Man is a uniquely desolate environment where germs are unable to live on surfaces and germs can never live inside of a pure salt lick.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 January 2012 05:23:37AM 6 points [-]

Or, at least, Burning Man is an environment in which licking the salt lick is probably not the most unsanitary thing most people are going to do that day.

Comment author: Bugmaster 11 January 2012 03:03:59AM 5 points [-]

I am probably hopelessly square and un-hip, but I wouldn't want to lick a pillar of salt that hundreds of people have licked before me. Not unless I get to know them better, first.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 11 January 2012 03:01:34AM 11 points [-]

If you're going with the Lot's wife symbology, you should arrange it so they approach the temple without looking at it. Also, something involving hospitality. And sodomy.

Well, ok, maybe not hospitality.

Comment author: Postal_Scale 11 January 2012 04:07:45AM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Raemon 15 January 2012 08:09:16PM 1 point [-]

I've started a google group for continued discussion: Rational Ritual

If you're interested, make sure to include your e-mail address in a PM. I'll be posting an introductory e-mail in a few days.

Comment author: Anubhav 13 January 2012 12:40:50PM 1 point [-]

I should probably mention this some place, and this is as good a place as any.

I know of another guy who designs rituals. In his case, they're intended to be the vanguard of a self-propagating memeplex that breeds loyalty for an evil megacorp.

Just seemed like relevant information; I'm guessing someone might find a use for it, but I have no idea what that use might be.

Comment author: Raemon 15 January 2012 08:01:40PM 0 points [-]

This is interesting. Whether it has specifically useful info I suspect that seeing where he was coming from and what similar people have accomplished can give me ideas on where/how to develop. Thanks.

Comment author: Anubhav 18 January 2012 09:14:18AM 1 point [-]

Also, this TED talk got uploaded today.

Comment author: Konkvistador 12 January 2012 08:56:08PM *  1 point [-]

actual extended edition

I've noticed you put an empty space as part of the link in spots like this, also in this whole piece nothing is bolded or italicized. Is this a workaround for the vanishing spaces bug?

Comment author: Raemon 15 January 2012 08:17:21PM *  0 points [-]

That wasn't intentional, and I'm not sure what caused it. I will note there are at least two italicized words ("some" and "ancient" are the first two I see).

Comment author: Konkvistador 15 January 2012 08:21:16PM *  0 points [-]

You are right, I should have read it more carefully before commenting. The extra space in the links and a quick note that there wasn't any bolded text or italicized that I could notice in a second or so of glancing or recall from when I read it, made me pretty confident in my hypothesis.

Comment author: Vaniver 11 January 2012 04:24:36AM 1 point [-]

Am I the only one seeing the text as tiny? I hope that wasn't a deliberate choice.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 11 January 2012 07:47:28AM 7 points [-]

I've never seen a posting that had any good reason to change the body text style in any way. It's as if people are preparing their posts in a styled text editor and then just pasting it in without regard for whether it matches the site style, and perhaps without even any conception of what I'm talking about.

Tip: If you're typing your text directly into the posting box, ignore all of the formatting controls, except when you need the occasional heading, italicised word, or hyperlink. If you're typing it into a separate text editor first, use an unstyled text editor, not Word. Paste it into the posting box. Then, and only if necessary, format the occasional italicised word etc. Never change the style of the whole text. It doesn't matter what you think "looks better". In all cases, what looks best is for it to match the style of every other posting.

If you think your post really is an exception to this rule, here's a simple test to see if it is: roll a standard 6-sided die. If it comes up 7, go ahead and set it in 72-point Curlicue Cats.

Comment author: Raemon 11 January 2012 03:50:42PM *  1 point [-]

I don't have a good excuse (not even "not knowing better"). I did it on a whim on the first post, and nobody complained until now so I kept doing it for this sequence. Fixing it is going to be a pain so I'm probably not going to unless at least one more person insists.

Straight text editors were just as annoying as Word was (this surprised me). The only thing I found that I could paste directly into without having to spend 10-15 minutes reformatting everything was google docs. I don't know what to make of Vaniver and Nornagest's opposite issues - I've looked at articles I posted via this method (with the default googleDoc font instead of the weird one I used in the ritual sequence) on several different computers and it worked fine.

Comment author: loup-vaillant 13 January 2012 02:24:18PM 0 points [-]

If you don't mind typing a bit of markup, I suggest you use a preprocessor like Markdown. Write in "plain text" (Markdown looks mostly like e-mails), convert it to html, then paste the result through the "HTML source" button.

If you don't mind a bit of markup, that may suit you.

Now for a plain text editor that doesn't suck, I don't know what to promote. I personally love Emacs, if only because you can install a Markdown mode that highlight your headers and slants your emphasises, but my love is partly due to my heavily customized key-bindings (the default ones are often clumsy). Overall, use anything but Windows' Notepad.

Comment author: Raemon 11 January 2012 05:11:10AM 1 point [-]

The font is slightly smaller (I was working in the same font that I was doing the ritual book in and sort of forgot-to-change-slash-kinda-liked-it-better-anyway. It's one size smaller than regular, which didn't seem terrible to me.

I've also gotten used to ctrl-scrolling to change font size on certain computers, so I stopped caring period, but if it's a problem for multiple people I'll try and fix it.

Comment author: Nornagest 11 January 2012 04:37:09AM 0 points [-]

I saw it as a couple sizes too large on my workstation, and on my laptop (with a higher resolution) it looks normal-sized but a different font than the default. Suspect a fixed font size.

Comment author: juliawise 09 February 2012 03:12:53PM *  0 points [-]

You should check out Revels if you haven't. It started as a sort of play bringing Christmas back to its pagan roots, and now puts on events through the year in Boston (In New York and other cities it's just at Christmas). They're the best creators of secular ritual I've seen. Not up to LW secularism standards, in that they sing old songs with religious references in them, but secular in feeling.

Comment author: Raemon 14 February 2012 08:24:42PM 0 points [-]

Oddly enough, heard about this from the other Julia a few weeks ago. But didn't have a link until now, so thanks!

Comment author: michaelcurzi 12 January 2012 01:53:14AM 0 points [-]

Wow. Having just read the solstice book, and before being anchored by the rest of the articles or reading other comments - this was really powerful. I didn't love every selection, but I strongly felt the emotional arc of the ceremony. My spirits fell the whole time, darker and darker, until the valence switched and at the end I was filled with hope. I'd love to try one of these ceremonies. Thank you.

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 01:56:05AM *  0 points [-]

Awesome! Thanks!

Which sections worked and didn't work for you, and do you know if it was more of an issue of quality or personal taste?

Comment author: michaelcurzi 17 January 2012 03:22:02AM *  2 points [-]

Quality takeaways: too much Lovecraft, I liked the Litanies but I think they should be switched out each year or ad-libbed. You should be sure to indicate which songs have prescribed melodies from other works and which you provided your own melodies for - this was confusing.

Personal taste takeaways: Zombie song was a little annoying and seemed irrelevant. I disliked the phrasing of the Metalitany - "give me positive utility" sounds dumb. 'No one is alone' seemed out-of-place and strange to read, but perhaps it comes across different when spoken rather than read. Including Still Alive was hilarious and welcome. The song Singularity made me a bit uncomfortable but I'm not sure why - perhaps because there's no mention of UFAI? I loved the final poem.

Comment author: Raemon 17 January 2012 04:09:14AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the feedback.

Definitely agree that the Litanies should be switched out each year - they're a good place to maintain some structure yet encourage variety, so that we don't get too attached to particular beliefs or even particular questions about beliefs.

Songs that were to the tune of a different song were actually noted - about a third of the song are parodied Christmas carols (which are labeled), another third are actual songs (sometimes obscure ones, but googlable). The confusing part is probably telling the different between obscure but googlable songs, and songs I wrote myself. Next year I'll definitely have everything properly attributed, and probably have music notation for less familiar songs.

Curious if you felt there was "too much Lovecraft" or "Lovecraft shouldn't have been present?" (It WILL be at least reduced next year, as I find better songs for the beginning section, but I'm wondering if there's some "optimal amount of Lovecraft" balance to find, or if I should just scrap it as I find better things to replace it with.)

I'm intrigued that No One is Alone sounded out of place - I actually liked how its theme tied directly into the previous songs' notion of "the end of the world is coming, and there's no clear plan on how to stop it, and you have to figure it out on your own." (Although I didn't intend this or notice until just now, it even picks up with the "only me beside you" idea, as the Father and Son are alone together.)

I'm still on the fence on the Singularity song but it's probably getting cut - a little too borderline religious sounding, and it really needs instrumentation to sound good anyway.

Comment author: michaelcurzi 17 January 2012 03:52:59PM 1 point [-]

As for Lovecraft, I think the main issue is this: I totally get why you're doing it - Lovecraft->'sense of doom and hopelessness in a world governed by physics'. Therefore, you conclude, that the ritual should include Lovecraft. But the Lovecraftian sections that you actually use seem like they have been inserted because you decided you were going to use Lovecraft, not because they actually index the peculiar 'sense of doom and hopelessness' that justified their insertion. The two instances of this I'm seeing are the Fish Men song and Necronomicon.

With regards to No One Is Alone - I don't think I really meant that it was out of place, but rather that it felt stilted and forced. Upon a second reading, though, I don't mind it as much. It's shorter than I originally thought and I'm not getting the same awkward feeling I did in the last reading, so I'll retract my criticism. If other people have the same reaction, then perhaps give it another thought.

Comment author: Raemon 11 January 2012 03:58:32PM *  0 points [-]

Potentially important question: What name should I use for the mailing list and/or blog I'm setting up?

It sounds like a silly, but I actually get annoyed every time I see the obnoxiously long "Overcoming Bias / Less Wrong NYC Rationality Group" full name that was chosen when we created the google group. I don't expect the mailing list to take off as a community, but on the off chance it does I'd rather it have a simple, nice sounding name that's easy to identify with, and which I don't have to fight inertia in order to change later.

The two options are to highlight the process of creating culture (Crafting Culture? Culture Design? Ritual Design?), or to highlight the actual culture I want to create (Rational Culture would sound nice to me, except I'm still sort of trying to shed the word "rationalist", and it also steps on the toes of 'Ethical Culture', a group I may be interacting with)

Comment author: hamnox 12 January 2012 08:47:52PM *  1 point [-]

If you're going for the actual culture highlighting, I'd recommend basing it off the 'something to protect' idea rather than 'rationalist'. In the end, that's really why we're doing all this. Culture (building) for the Future. Or use the 'i want to become stronger' meme.

On the other hand, Ritual for Rationality has a nice ring to it. Or use the word Meme. Everybody likes the word Meme!

Paranoid Meme-ifying

Meme-ifying Rituals for the Epistemologically Paranoid.

That last one's a little wordy, isn't it? Probably not a correct use of the word epistemologically either, if it is indeed a word.

Comment author: Raemon 13 January 2012 02:00:49AM *  1 point [-]

I'm going for something simple and catchy. 'Rational Ritual' isn't bad for certain contexts. I intend the blog to be useful for anyone building their own culture, and it may be useful to promote the idea of rituals that don't compromise rationality, even if rationality isn't what you're actually talking about.

Comment author: Raemon 10 January 2012 11:14:50PM *  0 points [-]

This doesn't actually feel as long as I was afraid it would, when I was working in Google Docs. Awaiting one or two comments that either confirm that I don't need to worry, or suggest how to resolve the problem.

Or possibly pointing out dramatic structural issues that I've completely overlooked.

Comment author: CronoDAS 12 January 2012 01:03:23AM 0 points [-]

Being long isn't a problem, but it would be better to put some of that length behind a "continue reading" link. (I don't remember how to do that in the post editor, though.)

Comment author: Raemon 12 January 2012 01:19:50AM 0 points [-]

Whoops. Accidentally broke the summary-cut when I fixed the font.

Comment author: falenas108 11 January 2012 02:25:58AM 0 points [-]

so that people naturally end up singing the write words even if they aren’t paying attention.

Was this intentional? If not, it's a very well placed typo.